Thursday, 16 April 2020

Nietzsche and the Burbs by Lars Iyer

 Nietzsche and the Burbs: Lars Iyer & Jon Day | Events | London ...

Nietzsche and the Burbs is a fascinatingly odd novel, one in which nothing really happens, over and over again, like time waiting for a nudge in the midriff. This is Nietzschean eternal return taken to its hellish, suburban conclusion, the world waiting for its ubermensch while all the time knowing deep down that no overcoming is forthcoming. It’s also extremely funny.

The narrator, Chandra, is a Pakistani teenager, part of an apocalypse-obsessed group of sixth-formers plodding their way towards their final exams and the end of childhood and the beginning of – what? They dream of death and discord, play doom-laden music which is seemingly devoid of melody or substance or cohesion or anything vaguely musical, they take drugs and debate the philosophy of nothingness. It is their fuck-you to the death-inducing stupor caused by living in the suburbs of Wokingham.

Into their life comes a new student, studiously strange, strangely charismatic. He argues with the teachers and is given to gnomic utterances about nihilism. Immediately, the others identify him as a leader and invite him into their group. He is nicknamed Nietzsche because of his resemblance to the philosopher of Sils Maria (except for the moustache, obviously). Here, the author, Lars Lyer, clearly a playful sort, has all sorts of fun threading the real Nietzsche’s history into that of his schoolboy Nietzsche – the overbearing mother, the bullying sister, dead father, love for a girl named Lou, the portents of mental disintegration. Nietzsche joins the band as lead singer, chant-speaking his way through typically adolescent death lyrics like Ian Curtis but without the talent.

The group’s story is at once banal and hilarious. They study, do PE, make smart-arsed comments to their teachers, deprecate the cheap lives of the grunts around them, get fabulously drunk and pair off in a variety of ways over and over, each chapter divided into the days of their final ten weeks of school. There isn’t a lot of plot and there doesn’t need to be. Lyers’s ear for dialogue is acute, and the unintentionally bathetic nature of the group’s philosophical pontification is extremely funny. There are certainly flaws in the novel – in particular the constant repetitions of the starts of sentences or people’s names or activities becomes wearing. The musical descriptions, although initially funny – Chandra’s unwitting self-delusion about the band’s musical ability most strongly reminds me of the achingly funny musical essays Patrick Bateman slides into his narration in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho – in the end appear to often and at too great length.

But make no mistake, this is gloriously funny. If you’ve read Percival Everett (particularly Erasure) and enjoyed his whimsical use of philosophy as narrative engine, then Nietzsche and the Burbs is for you.

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